The ultimate shame of Paper Man is not the regrettable plotting, the lame characters, or the sheer pointless mopery of the film, but the fact that such a project is wasting a remarkably talented cast. Seriously, it was like watching someone line a birdcage with Monet paintings. Like an infant lulled by the bright colors of “Yo Gabba Gabba,” I was easily distracted by the shiny actressin’. But then it occurs to you that you’re watching an incredibly shitty replica of Dan in Real Life or Yes Man. It’s just another boring ass, middle-aged crisis flick about an older man trying to grow up through a relationship with a teen stranger that happens to benefit from awesome actors. It tries to fool everyone by plastering in forced whimsicality in an attempt to seem Kaufmanesque, but instead it just becomes confused and bitter and depressing. Had the story focused on the young girl and her problems instead of playing off the author and his problems, it might have been a stronger flick, instead of coming across as Adaptation meets that episode of “South Park” that makes fun of Michael Jackson.
Rich white people have problems, you know? So what they do is they rent a house near Montauk so the novelist husband can work on his second book while the incredibly successful cardiologist wife can work in the city and visit on weekends. The husband Richard (Jeff Daniels) is basically a man-child with fussy neuroticism. You’re not quite sure if he’s got some sort of severe mental disorder, maybe even autism, or if he’s just a weirdo. He refers to his wife Claire (Lisa Kudrow, welcome back) as The Doctor, and at first, I wasn’t quite sure if they were married or if she was a sister or cousin. The lack of chemistry works for the characters, as you don’t understand how or why they’re still married. Claire disappears off to the city, leaving Richard all by himself. Well, except for Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds).
You see, Richard has an imaginary friend that only he can see — a Superman doppleganger with a massive package and a bleached Wesley Snipes-from-Demolition Man do. Captain Excellent mocks Richard for his failure to start the novel, for his stupid foolish choices, for his basic inability to function as a human being. Richard’s an easy mark. He’s easily distracted, he needs to work on an electric typewriter instead of a laptop, and he gets frustrated with furniture. All of this would be excusable, maybe even considered quirky and eccentrically adorable, if Richard was worth a damn as an author. Nobody read his first novel, a drudgery called The Renderer. Again, I love the fact that we have a grownass man who never grew up getting hosed by his imaginary best friend. Could have been a contendah, Rock.
So Richard hops on a kid’s bike and awkwardly pedals into town. Enter Abby (Emma Stone). She stands outside a dimestore, making out with her mindless tool of a boyfriend (Hunter Parrish) as her weird stalker friend (Kieran Culkin) lurks in the shadows nearby. Abby’s boyfriend basically humps her and dumps her and then wanders off with his friends, ignoring her. When Richard first sees Abby, she’s lighting a fire in a trashcan outside the dimestore. Richard snuffs the fire and kind of spy-hunts her down an alley. Abby’s a loner, Dottie, a rebel, with no friends except the one creepy boy who’s obsessed with her. Thank Christ, she’s not a stock-character spitfire. She wields a wicked tongue, not a board with a nail in it. She confronts Richard, and he asks her to babysit on Fridays. The only problem is that Richard doesn’t have a baby. Yeah. You’re starting to see the problems with the film.
The rest of the movie is basically Richard and Abby telling each other their secrets and tragedies. You can almost feel the longing for a Snow Patrol song as they stare into the surf. To its benefit, Paper Man has a mostly freewheeling spirit, even if it feels like it was written while simultaneously watching Donnie Darko and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s just got this weird fugue state, wandering jovially until they remember something horrible that happened. If not for the brilliance of the cast, this would feel like a terrible film school thesis, sans the sad piano over a train crossing metaphors.
And the cast really is wonderful. They even managed to shoehorn Arabella Field and Chris Parnell as friends. Emma Stone could knock Olivia Thirlby out of the running for current indie darling with this performance, and Hunter Parrish is fucking AMAZING as the douchebag with the grunting NooYahk brogue. Reynolds does as much as he can with Captain Excellent, as does Kieran Culkin with his mopey teen sidekick, but there’s not much for them to work with.
I just couldn’t tolerate the relationship between Richard and Abby because it seemed so disingenuous. Can a grown man and a teen girl be friends without sexual overtones? Of course. But that needs to be addressed immediately, and the filmmakers play coy. Are they gonna fuck, are they gonna not fuck? Why is Richard so intent on this relationship with Abby? Why does he so obviously lie; what’s so important about this young girl to this social recluse? What makes the situation more sinister is that Captain Excellent is constantly berating and even at one point physically restraining Richard, insisting that he avoid messing around with a young girl’s heart because it’s going to end poorly. Instead of playful innocence, the film takes on stark overtones, and I fully expected someone to end up dead. But in reality, it’s almost two hours of posing for a boardwalk caricaturist, and the end result is a stick figure. I can deal with ambiguity in resolution, but this is just outright arbitrary.
The film was written and directed by husband-wife team Kieran and Michele Mulroney — Kieran being Dermot’s lil’ bro. Both of them are well in their forties, and for my own sake, I had hoped that folks eventually got over their maudlin caterwauling and stopped writing films about mid-life crises, but I guess it’s steadfastly becoming a new niche. The most depressing part of the Mulroney’s crapping the bed on this one is that they’ve been tasked to write the follow-up to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes flick. Paper Man’s just a greasy napkin turned into an origami swan. It just can’t possibly live up to the potential of the cast, which goes to show the dangers of the Sundance laboratory program.